Management lessons from NASA’s James Webb

James Webb

Just four months after James Webb took over as administrator at NASA, President John F. Kennedy announced his goal of putting a man on the moon, “before the decade is out.” Webb led NASA from 1961 to 1968, and there’s a lot that can be learned from those heady days of early-space exploration.

Here are five lessons in management from James Webb:

Delegate to the experts (and stand by them)

When Webb was offered the role with NASA, he was hesitant to accept because of his lack of experience in the field of space travel. His background, after all, was as an “experienced manager, attorney and businessman,” according to a bio of Webb by NASA. President Kennedy ultimately convinced him to get on board by explaining that his role would be more about policy.

However, this lack of experience in the realm of rocketry left the scientific community anxious. “The scientists at NASA headquarters had wanted someone with a keen interest in space science and a desire to bolster the involvement of universities in the space program,” says NASA.

However, almost immediately, Webb enhanced the role of scientists at NASA. He offered them more control over choosing missions, for example, and established the NASA University Program to give fellowships and grants for space research, as well as funding for new university laboratories.

Deferring judgement to the experts became increasingly challenging as the race to the moon continued, but Webb never wavered. “Time and again he supported the judgment of colleagues within the agency against political interference. In his own words, he ‘couldn’t let anybody dictate the decisions that were at the technical level, whether it was the president or the vice president or the scientists,’” wrote Piers Bizony in a 2011 article in NASA’s ASK Magazine.

Be realistic

In a 2007 lecture at NASA, Bizony spoke about how when the lunar program was coming together, and Webb needed to get a budget in place, he asked his team to come up with a rough idea of what the program would cost over the next few years. The first figure his team gave him was $9 or $10 billion USD.

“And then Webb says, ‘Oh come on, give me a break. You’re assuming that everything is going to go right the first time, every time. Go away, be realistic,’” said Bizony.

The new figure that Webb’s team brought to him was $13 billion USD, but the amount he actually asked the White House for was $20 billion USD – and they approved it. “What he was doing was preparing America and giving America the bad news first. So that if they spent more than $13 billion – which is, of course, what happened – they would still be under the figure that he’d warned everybody the might have to expect.”

Stay organized and focus on communication

Even in its earliest stages, NASA was a huge undertaking. “In 1966, NASA directly employed 36,000 people, with another 360,000 people working for 20,000 contractors and 200 universities in 80 countries,” says scholar Martin Parker. “This meant accounting for people and things, chains of command, scheduled meetings with determinate agendas, as well as plans, graphs, reports and deadlines. The Moon landing was a triumph of organization, of project management and control of a complex socio-technical system.”

Even though the actual moon landing took place after Webb’s tenure, it was his framework for NASA – turning it into “an organization instead of a collection of field centres,” according to Bizony – that led to it ultimately achieving its goal of landing on the moon by the end of the ‘60s.

Most notably, according to Bizony, Webb instituted a flat hierarchy to ensure open communication between field centres and NASA headquarters. This applied to individual workers, too – he wanted a metal engineer, for example, to be able to report directly to senior levels of NASA without middle management getting in the way. “For a long time, this system worked,” said Bizony. “From 1961 to 1966, NASA was a pretty flat organization, where things got done at a remarkable pace and with a remarkable success rate.”

Play the long game

In a 1969 oral history project with the Lyndon B. Johnson library in Austin, Texas, Webb discussed how several times, President Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson asked him why he wasn’t stopping all other projects and focusing solely on beating Russia’s lunar program to the moon:

“My answer was always, ‘It’s too important. And so far as I’m concerned, I’m not going to run a program that’s just a one-shot program. If you want me to be the administrator, it’s going to be a balanced program that does the job for the country that I think has got to be done.’”

As a result of this approach, Webb brought NASA right to the edge of the moon landing, but he also made significant developments into robotic spacecraft and space telescopes, sent probes to Mars and Venus, and led many more projects that helped NASA develop into what it is today.

Take failure in stride

In 1967, during a launchpad test of the Apollo 1 spacecraft, an electrical fire killed the three crew members on board: Virgil I. Grissom, Edward H. White II, Roger B. Chaffee. The very next day, Webb was at the White House proposing an investigation into what caused the tragedy. “He promised to be truthful in assessing blame and pledged to assign it to himself and NASA management as appropriate,” says NASA. “The agency set out to discover the details of the tragedy, to correct problems, and to get back on schedule.”

Unfortunately, additional complications ensued. The aftermath exposed an internal document citing problems with one of the spacecraft’s main contractors. Though it ultimately was found to have no bearing on the fire, the document embarrassed Webb, who didn’t know about it, and threatened the Apollo program as a whole. However, Webb pushed forward.

“Webb was vilified both in the press and in government, and he took much of the flak for the tragedy,” says Jonathan O’Callaghan in an article for All About Space magazine. “Perhaps on purpose, he directed much of the criticism from NASA onto himself.”

Bizony offers a similar sentiment: “He shouldered much of the blame during the subsequent Congressional inquisitions, protecting Apollo and its people as best he could from direct repercussions.”

Thanks to Webb’s handling of the situation, the Apollo program continued on – with redesigned engineering and new safety procedures in place: a testament to the power of taking ownership over problems and challenges, and focusing on getting things back on track.

For more on Webb’s management style, try to track down his book, Space age management; the large-scale approach, which is based on a series of lectures he did for the McKinsey Foundation in 1969.

(Feature image credit: NASA)

See also:
What NASA can teach us about hiring
How to be a good boss: 7 tips from an executive coach


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